The Catholic Fur-Trading North

When I had the bookstore all those years ago, I kept a big supply of Bison Books from the University of Nebraska that told the tales of the fur traders and mountain men. It was not my thing; American history was not my thing. I read fiction and short stories, mysteries and books from and about the Ottoman Empire and the wars on the Eastern Front.

Alvin Josephy came into the bookstore when he came from the East each year—he was still working at American Heritage then. He always wanted to know what new pieces of local and regional history had appeared in the year, and quickly bought the books on Smith Mountain and Snake River. He knew the books on Indians, and I started reading them—and his books.

In the almost fifty years since, often with Alvin looking over my shoulder—at least in my own mind—I’ve come to love learning the real history of this crazy country. And especially to love the historians like Alvin who said that Indians were here and were “agents” in the evolution of the country we live in today. Indians, Alvin said, were mostly omitted from the standard versions of American history. The recent surge of real, gritty history—that is not about Anglo white men blended into one “Fathers of the Nation”—is compelling history, and history that tells us something about why and what we are today.

A week ago, my library volunteer Elnora and I went to Tamastslikt to a book event featuring Blaine Harden, author of Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West, and Sarah Koenig, a college professor and author of Providence and the Invention of American History.

I’d read and liked Harden’s book, a wrap-up of the journey of Marcus Whitman from failed missionary to hero savior of the Northwest and namesake of one of the finest colleges in the West, and back down again on his feet of clay. Koenig goes a step further, using the Whitman rise and rise and rise—and its promotors and ideologies—to tell a larger story of how American history was and is told. There are over 100 pages of footnotes in her book; fortunately, she is a good writer whose story rises above its footnotes.

There is so much to cover in both books, but let me keep right now to the story of the battle between the Protestant missionaries, and their grandiose belief in a Providential—God-driven—history of the West, and their own ordained roles in that great unfolding, and the hated Catholics, even then, according to these Protestant missionaries, intent on making the papacy supreme in the land. (Flashbacks to the presidential campaign of 1960, and my Lutheran church’s fears that the Pope would soon be running the country.)

In my reading of Josephy and of new histories of the Indian nations and Indian wars, new histories of slavery and racism, of Indian Removal and an abolitionist route to Mexico, of slavery in Oregon and our Exclusion Laws, of John Jacob Astor and the Astorians, of David Douglas, and now of Marcus Whitman, Henry Spalding, and William Gray, the anti-Catholic bias of the Northwest and the country glows bright. We were, at least a in our public tellings, a God-fearing and Providence-driven Protestant nation. It was God’s will and the nation’s destiny that good White Protestant missionaries lead us West.

I don’t want to discuss the crimes promulgated by Catholic priests on Indian children, or the crimes visited on Indian children by Protestant missionaries and government functionaries with their boarding schools and Indian Codes. For these few minutes I want to focus on the Protestant belief in superiority and destiny and, maybe, why a fuller history of the country might have been told if Catholics—and the fur trade—had been part of the mainstream historical narrative.

The fur trade along the northern border was different in many ways from the Southern slave and cotton economy and the settler-expansionist economy that coursed through the middle of the country. First and foremost, the fur trade needed Indians as active partners in the work. Secondly, it was not based on settlement, but on trade conducted by a few men operating largely for British and European interests. Third, the on-the-ground European partners in this barter economy were largely single men—often French-Canadian voyageurs, who took Native wives. Intermarriage was not only ok; it was sanctioned, and often sanctified by Catholic priests brought West by the fur companies. The Metis in Canada and along parts of the Northern US Border are a testament to an actual melding of European and Native peoples and cultures. The Michif-Cree language, a mixture of French and Indian languages, is still spoken in places in Canada, where there is a mixture of Catholicism and Native religion as well.

This is all far distant from the standard histories of our country—and the textbooks, at least until very recently. That standard history settled around words—words of the Declaration and Constitution, words in Treaties and Laws. Boarding schools sought to erase Indian words and cultures, to assimilate and Anglicize Indians. Our White words of transforming the continent were “civilize,” “Removal,” and, eventually, “Manifest Destiny.”

In the Harden and Koenig books , the story of missionary Marcus Whitman saving the West and a providential—God driven—Protestant destiny in making the Northwest part of the US is exposed and exploded. We learn that Whitman’s failure as a missionary, and his death at the hands of Cayuse Indians in the midst of a measles epidemic, became, through the vigorous work of Henry Spalding, a story of martyrdom in the service of US and Protestant expansion. Spalding, a complicated and by all accounts a not-nice man, and his wife Eliza, had come West with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and settled among the Nez Perce near Lapwai, while the Whitmans settled in the Walla Walla valley to missionize among the Cayuse. The whole story is complicated by Spalding’s marriage proposal to Narcissa—and her rejection—just a few years prior to their joint journey west.

The Whitman deaths, and Spalding’s own narrow escape from the same end with the warning of a Catholic priest, seemed only to harden his hatred for the Catholics. According to Koenig, “Spalding viewed the killings—and virtually any subsequent hardships he and his loved ones suffered—as part of a Catholic conspiracy to drive out and discredit the Protestant missionaries of Oregon…” Spalding would write anti-Catholic essays and join a version of the Know Nothings, a stridently anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant political faction of the time.

Koenig uses the Whitman story to trace the American writing of history from a Providential, God-driven narrative of western expansion to and through a secular practice of academic history that substituted a “scientific” history based on facts. Catholics and some Western secularists had used facts to counter Spalding’s fabrications; the Eastern scientific academy followed with facts, but soon substituted “progress” for “providence,” and saw American history as inspired, if not by God, by a teleology of progress. Theirs became the new standard history.

Catholics and mixed-blood practitioners from the North; Indians who could not be “civilized” (the oldest turn for making Indians white by conversion), and who insisted on some kind of economic agency in trading with Europeans; and the long-time French and French-Canadian antagonists of the British and then the Anglo-Americans, got scant mention in the new history.

That’s changing now, with a post Providential, post Progress narrative history, written by academics and Indian, Latinx and African American scholars. But one wonders how historical events themselves would have been different had the virulent anti-Catholicism and Providential thinking of the early missionaries not been lionized, and had the early academics who exposed the Protestants not substituted Progress—and then Manifest Destiny—for God.

As Marcus Whitman is removed from his pedestal, and Henry Spalding exposed for the grieved missionary and myth-maker that he was, we might look to others. There are so many other men—and women; White and Indian—chronicled in the early history of White expansion and settlement. And Indians. Indians had power and ideas of managing the world, had their own religions and adaptations; Whites and Indians intermarried; fur-traders wrestled for the West, and for the route to the Pacific. Some Catholics and Protestants even helped each other; some missionaries were kinder and more accommodating than others; some Indians, including Spokan Garry, had converted and were missionizing among their peers before Whitman and Spalding arrived in the Oregon Country. And John McLoughlin, of French-Canadian ancestry, married three times, twice to Indian women, factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Vancouver, who helped the Protestants when they were in need, and brought Catholic priests to serve his French-Canadian trappers, sometimes called the “Father of Oregon,” was a late convert to Catholicism.

All of this “other” American history is out there, on the other side of Whiman and American destiny. The full catalog of Bison Books—reprints of classic stories of tribes and fur traders, mountain men and women, and new books about a history that flows from them to the latest pipeline protests in the Dakotas—would be a good place to start a “revised standard history” of the country.

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  1. Yes, Rich! Ethnic pride and religion that was often more political than spiritual led to atrocities. My DNA is more than half from the British Isles, to my shame. Where did we English descendants get our sense of entitlement? (Now there’s Brexit!) When will we be “we,” not “we and they”?

  2. Agree Ed. And I’ve come to think that the idea of racial and British superiority goes back to the Age of Enlightenment and imperialism. “Science” gave us classification, and we put White above Brown and Black. Evolution and eventually eugenics, placed white folks–especially British and N European white folks, at the top.

  3. When I converted to Catholicism years ago, I started discovering the history of the missionary priests and nuns in the Northwest (which at least in the ’90s was still being discussed within the Church). A totally different perspective and attitude from what I experienced growing up in Springfield Public Schools. The Catholic Sentinel in that era usually had at least one column about the history of Catholicism in Portland, and it’s fascinating to learn about the different ethnic parishes in Portland. Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. But it’s only so in and around Portland, near as I can tell, because it’s one of the few places in Oregon where there is more than a handful of parishes in the urban area.

    As far as other history is concerned, I’ve encountered some interesting facets while looking for my own family’s history in Oregon. I like to joke that I’m one of the rare fifth-gen Oregonians/settler descendants whose family remained deliberately obscure (seriously; in college I ran with some other fifth gens whose ancestors feuded in the Territorial/State Legislature and they carried those feuds down to the present day). Reality is that my ancestors were broke dirt farmers who probably came out as hired hands and servants to the Applegates. A couple of the women married into the Applegates; otherwise, none of ’em held onto family lands for more than a generation.

    But those stories don’t often get told. A paragraph here; a reference there. A great-grandmother killed during the aftermath of a freak snowstorm when the barn collapsed on her. That family also had friendly relationships with the Modocs. My mother used to say, years before the books came out about the Modoc War, that the Modocs got a bad deal and had been done wrong. But she never went into detail–and now I wonder if that was word-of-mouth family lore.

    Sadly, I’ll never really know the truth of that.

  4. Thanks Joyce, and yes, the things we didn’t ask. I’m tempted some days to get in the car and drive to that small Minnesota town where I was born, and where there are still a few cousins and cousins’ kids, and ask them what they know about the ojibwe next door–we knew nothing all those years ago,

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